While most college basketball fans are fixated on the in-season tournaments such as the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis this week, one of the game's oldest rivalries is renewed just across the street from Van Cortlandt Park, just a few blocks from the Westchester County border, with the annual "Battle of the Bronx" being contested once again between Manhattan and Fordham, this time returning to Draddy Gym in Riverdale.
The 106th edition of the war for bragging rights in New York's northernmost borough returns to the home of the Jaspers for the first time since Manhattan imparted an 81-47 thrashing upon the Rams in December of 2011, with the two teams playing a much closer 65-58 decision at Rose Hill Gym last November that also went to Manhattan. This season, although the combined winning percentage of the two programs is the highest since Bobby Gonzalez and Dereck Whittenburg paced the benches in 2004, the two schools could not be any further apart in states of their teams. However, as Fordham head coach Tom Pecora told us, "records are thrown out the window on that night."
Fordham enters one of their showcase games of the nonconference schedule at 2-2 on the young season, with the Rams' latest effort being a disappointing 85-73 setback at home against a previously 0-4 Sacred Heart team that outrebounded the Rams down the stretch to give head coach Anthony Latina his first career win. Pecora's roster has also battled injuries and a lack of frontcourt depth, forcing Bryan Smith to play out of position up front as a fourth guard until he was injured before the Sacred Heart game, where he was replaced by Jermaine Myers. The Rams have struggled inside the paint as both Ryan Rhoomes and Travion Leonard have been unable to stay out of foul trouble through the first four games, relying on their stellar backcourt of Branden Frazier, Mandell Thomas and freshman sensation Jon Severe to carry them through 40 minutes. The departure of Ryan Canty (personal reasons) and ineligibility of Manny Suarez (redshirting after being ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA) has also thrust freshman wing Jake Fay into arguably more action than Pecora may have initially wanted to give him this early in the season.
Across the court, Manhattan comes into their second home game of the season with a 3-0 road record, as the Jaspers' lone loss came at Draddy nine days ago to George Washington despite a 34-point explosion from George Beamon. Head coach Steve Masiello has by far his most talented and depth-laden roster in this, his third season since leaving his former post as Rick Pitino's top lieutenant at Louisville to replace Barry Rohrssen, and enters tomorrow night's matchup looking for his first 4-1 start at the helm. Having Beamon, his dynamic senior shooting guard, back at 100 percent after he was limited to just four games a year ago, has been a godsend to the Manhattan roster, giving the Jaspers a player at each position that can burn their opposition. Masiello has taken advantage of his depth by starting three guards and playing former point man Michael Alvarado off the ball with either Tyler Wilson or CJ Jones at the point, with a bench headlined by a pair of forwards in Ashton Pankey and Shane Richards that would start on any other roster in the MAAC.
Without any further ado, here is the "tale of the tape," as Manhattan and Fordham take the court in the biggest game in the Bronx for the next few months until the Yankees take the field again next season:
Point Guard: Tyler Wilson (Fr., 0.0 PPG, 0.5 RPG, 0.8 APG) vs. Branden Frazier (Sr., 22.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.3 APG)
Wilson is still looking for his first career points as he enters his fifth career game, but has been lauded by his teammates as a floor general who is mature beyond his years. A Bronx native himself, having played at Cardinal Hayes High School, Wilson will look to shut down the Rams' leading scorer, who already has a career-high 33-point outburst at Syracuse under his belt in a game that Fordham only lost by 15 points two weeks ago. Although he has a tendency to force up a couple of bad shots every game and miss a clutch free throw every once in a while, Frazier's refuse-to-lose mantra and will to win every time he steps on the floor gives him the edge against a freshman still improving every night. Edge: Fordham
Shooting Guard #1: Michael Alvarado (Sr., 11.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.0 APG) vs. Mandell Thomas (So., 13.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.8 APG, 2.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
This may turn out to be the best matchup of the night, as the Bronx product Alvarado; the MVP of last year's Battle of the Bronx, locks horns with arguably the most underrated player in the Atlantic 10, the freakishly athletic Thomas, whose all-around ability would be impossible to put a price tag on, even at a high-major program like North Carolina. Alvarado "took the game over" according to Tom Pecora last season, and always seems to shine in big games, while Thomas is a star in the making after his first career double-double last week against Lehigh elevated him to even greater heights. However, the sophomore has reportedly been battling illness through the last several days, and if Manhattan gets him at less than 100 percent, the Jaspers can consider themselves fortunate. Edge: Push
Shooting Guard #2: George Beamon (Sr., 27.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 49% FG, 42% 3pt) vs. Jon Severe (Fr., 21.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 38% 3pt)
Present will meet future in this showcase of the stars, as one of the nation's most dynamic scorers in Beamon goes up against the reigning New York State Mr. Basketball in Severe, who is Tom Pecora's biggest recruit since arriving at Rose Hill, at least until Eric Paschall suits up for the Rams next season. Beamon has gone for at least 24 points in each of Manhattan's four games, which will force Severe; who is already much more valuable on the defensive end than almost anyone may realize, into more of a lockdown role when the ball is in Beamon's hands. Expect each guard to go all out in trying to one-up the other, with experience most likely prevailing over youth. Edge: Manhattan
Forward #1: Emmy Andujar (Jr., 7.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.8 SPG) vs. Bryan Smith (Jr., 8.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 43% 3pt)
Andujar, best known for his buzzer-beating three-pointer that erased an 18-point deficit and pushed Manhattan past Iona in January of 2012 for Masiello's first signature win as head coach, holds the key to the biggest mismatch of the evening, as his brute strength and physicality will be able to wear down the quicker and smaller Smith if he is able to start. Smith has also battled foul trouble through his first three games, sometimes committing fouls in inopportune situations, but his knack for outside shots is rivaled by very few. Should Smith be unable to go, sophomore Jermaine Myers will likely get the start and play point guard, which may push Frazier into guarding Beamon and Severe up to battle Andujar. Either way, the Jasper size wins out here. Edge: Manhattan
Forward #2: Rhamel Brown (Sr., 8.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.0 BPG) vs. Ryan Rhoomes (So., 6.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
Brown has been waiting all season to impose his will and go off for a big game, and he may have his chance tomorrow night against Rhoomes, who; much like Bryan Smith and his frontcourt partner Travion Leonard, has been unable to stay out of foul trouble despite being a force on the offensive glass. The senior from Brooklyn, who is also the best shot blocker in the New York metropolitan area, should be able to establish a presence in the lane against Rhoomes on both ends of the ball, not to mention his unparalleled ability to track down any rebound within an 18-inch radius of him. Edge: Manhattan
Manhattan has a cast of reserves that would be greatly welcomed in the starting five for Fordham at this stage of the game, with Ashton Pankey and Shane Richards leading the charge while RaShawn Stores and CJ Jones add to the mounds of backcourt depth that is also augmented by junior wing Donovan Kates. It is not uncommon for Manhattan to play ten or eleven players a night, whereas Tom Pecora has more of a set eight-man rotation now that Ryan Canty has left the team, going to Travion Leonard, Jake Fay and junior college transfer guard Chris Whitehead as his main reserves. If Fordham is able to stay out of foul trouble, the Rams can extend their life a little longer, but the Jasper talent may be just too much to overcome. Edge: Manhattan
In just his third season, Steve Masiello has already been mentioned as a potential candidate for the next high-major coaching vacancy, as the 36-year-old has restored the winning tradition to Manhattan that was cultivated when he was the top assistant to Bobby Gonzalez during a seven-year stretch that saw the Jaspers win two MAAC championships and make two NIT appearances as well. On the other side of the court, Pecora is still trying to turn the corner in his fourth season at Fordham after a decade of success at Hofstra, earning mixed results in the process. A staunch three-guard advocate who is now playing smaller out of necessity, Pecora's system has worked against smaller teams in the Rams' victories against Saint Francis and Lehigh, but has had difficulty against bigger and more physical front lines, which tips the scales further into Manhattan's favor. Edge: Manhattan
Manhattan's pregame stats, courtesy of Jasper legend Ronnie Weintraub: